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NTSB details plane crash, raising questions about cause

August 7, 2014
By MATTHEW TURNER ( , Lake Placid News

LAKE PLACID - "I will follow you in," were the last words Fred Kafka spoke over the radio while attempting to bring his Mooney M20F aircraft in for a second landing at the Lake Placid Airport July 19.

That was one of the new details about a fatal plane crash that the National Transportation Safety Board released Thursday.

Kafka's plane crashed in a farm field close to the airport. The impact killed the 63-year-old pilot, his daughter Kathleen Kafka, 24, and her friend Reed Phillips, 25. Kathleen Kafka and Phillips were graduate students at Clarkson University in Potsdam.

Article Photos

Lake Placid firefighters finish extinguishing flames from the wreckage of an airplane that crashed July 19, killing all three people aboard.
News photo — Andy Flynn

The evidence presented in the NTSB's preliminary report points to the plane flying with its landing flaps down or potential damage to the aircraft by an initial landing attempt; however, preliminary reports only lay out the evidence of a crash and do not determine the cause. With a fatal crash, a probable cause report generally takes a year for NTSB to complete.


The incident

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Fred Kafka, from the Ohio River city of Vienna, West Virginia, left the Potsdam Municipal Airport Saturday morning, taking his daughter and Phillips on a sightseeing trip around Lake Placid. He had previously flown up from West Virginia with his girlfriend to Nantucket, Massachusetts, and then he flew solo to Potsdam to visit his daughter.

The winds were calm that day, and there were no "preexisting mechanical anomalies" in the engine, according to the report. Fred Kafka's own health was not a factor in the accident, either, an autopsy later showed.

According to the NTSB report, a pilot at the Lake Placid Airport heard a radio transmission from Fred Kafka saying he was inbound for a landing at runway 14. The runway is 4,196 feet long and 60 feet wide. At around the same time, another, locally based pilot was also approaching to land on the same runway.

In a written statement to NTSB, the other pilot attempting to land said he never saw another airplane or heard any radio transmissions from a plane.

The pilot on the ground "then saw (Kafka's) airplane pitching up at a steep angle while banking right at a steep angle, and it appeared as though the right wing may have struck the runway," according to the report. The NTSB, however, states that examination of the wing tip discredits the claim that the wing scraped the runway. It's unclear from the report what part of the plane, or if any part, scraped the runway.

Fred Kafka then appeared to have recovered from the mishap, the airport witness told NTSB.

"He started a shallow turn to the right and started to climb along the right side of the runway," the witness reportedly said.

After the first attempt, both planes circled to try to land again.

The pilot on the ground "then heard the Mooney pilot transmit something over the radio; he couldn't recall what it was, but that it sounded angry, followed later by his transmitting in a calmer voice, 'I will follow you in,'" the report states.

The airport witness then described that the Mooney's landing gear was down and the airplane was slowly gaining altitude at "a steeper than normal angle." The plane's nose then "dropped," sending it into a counter-clockwise spin downward. The witness told NTSB it dropped "so fast it didn't even make a complete turn before it went out of sight."

Another witness, a golfer, told NTSB that the Mooney's right wing was up and left wing down as it descended.


The crash

The plane hit two pine trees before crashing and bursting into flames on the property of Snowslip Farm on River Road. The pilot and two passengers were killed instantly, Essex County Coroner Frank Whitelaw said later.

Lesley Trevor, co-owner of Snowslip Farm, and her daughter did not witness the crash but they said heard a loud thud. They then moved their horses away from the burning plane, which was extinguished shortly afterward by the Lake Placid Volunteer Fire Department.

Emergency responders cut part of the airplane away to remove the occupants. The plane was later transported to a New York State Police holding yard, where the NTSB studied it.

The report states that "the tail section was bent to the right in relation to the rest of the fuselage, consistent with left rotation at impact." There was no evidence the plane caught fire while flying.

Other evidence the NTSB collected showed that the landing gear was in the down position. The landing gear was determined to be extended, and the tires were out of the wheel wells.

Photographs taken by state police showed a 17-foot scrape at the runway.

"The scrape veered gradually to the left, which was inconsistent with an airplane seen turning hard to the right," the report states. NTSB examined the right wing tip and found it to be in "pristine" condition with "no structural damage." This contradicts the witness' statement that the Mooney aircraft scraped its right wing.


The cause?

Steve Short, the longtime Lake Placid Airport manager, read the NTSB report on the crash. He was not an eyewitness but heard firsthand from a witness who was interviewed by NTSB.

What does he think caused the crash?

Short said he did not believe the plane scraping the runway (if it did) was the cause, but that the airplane's flaps being down could have done it.

"It seemed to me that it was an error that I'm sure he knew better than to do a go-around that way," he said. "If he wasn't a little flustered, he would have known better to put the gear and flaps up."

Was the crash caused by pilot error?

"I'm not going to say yes or no," Short said. "It could have been other stuff."

Short also said that the NTSB report misidentified the witness at the airport as a charter pilot. He said the witness was a pilot, but not for the charter service.



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